Saturday, April 1, 2017

Moria: Victory!

I've been re-reading the early days of The CRPG Addict lately, and it's made me realise two things. The first is that Chester had the right idea at the beginning. I suspect that he wouldn't agree, but the rules he started with meant that he was able to kick off his blog with a run of solid classics: Wizardry, Ultima, Rogue, Bard's Tale, pretty much all of the staples of the 1980s CRPG scene. All told, it seems like a very pleasant way to ease into a years-long project, and I'm very envious.

I, on the other hand - using the fruits of Chester's research, I'll admit - started from the beginning, with The Dungeon from 1975. "I'll get through the 1970s quickly," I had thought. "All of the games will be really short, and I'll knock them out with no trouble." What a naive soul I was. Here I am three years later, and I've just beaten Moria, the fourth game on my list. The Game of Dungeons v5 took me about three months to complete. Orthanc took twice that. The Game of Dungeons v8 took up a whole year. Moria took me eight months, in addition to the several months I spent on it back in 2015. What I'm saying is, these games are much longer than I was expecting them to be, and have occupied me for far longer than I wanted them to.

Which brings me to my second realisation: I want to get to the 1980s really badly. As far as RPGs and adventure games go, the 80s and early 90s are my sweet spot, and if I can cover those periods with some semblance of completeness I'll be happy. I had this realisation last Thursday, and it was then that I made my resolution: I was going to play Moria at every spare moment, and get the bloody thing off my schedule. I would do no reading, no writing, no blogging, play no other video games, and watch no TV that would require more than minimal attention: Moria would be my life until I beat it or died trying. A little under a week later, I emerged victorious, though perhaps no more enriched from the experience.

Since my last post on Moria I had lost at least one character, and as of my resolution I was playing as Tarret, a member of the Union of Knights. Before Tarret I had been exclusively playing wizards, due to their ability to teleport back to the City from anywhere else in the game. I would have continued playing wizards, because the game is just too big to be going back and forth from the dungeons all the time, but my previous character had found a particular magic item that made the other guilds a viable choice: an Amulet of Home. Using the amulet worked exactly like the wizard's teleport ability, so when I found it I stashed it in my character's guild locker, ready to be passed down to my next character upon my death. Said death inevitably occurred, and Tarret inherited the amulet (along with the best weapon in the game and loads of good armour). Having failed numerous times as a member of the Guild of Wizards, it was time to try something else, and I went with the Union of Knights.

I'm convinced that this decision is the main reason that I'm able to write this victory post. Knights supposedly have two special abilities: they take less damage from enemies in combat, and they can occasionally behead their foes and score an instant kill. I say supposedly, because I never saw any messages telling me that I had beheaded a monster; it may have been happening in the background, but I have no way of knowing. Knights definitely do take less damage in combat, though; I would estimate about half of what other characters suffer. This made it a lot easier for me to survive on lower levels, and allowed me to explore a lot faster than I'd been doing previously.

In addition to the Amulet of Home, I also had a Life Ring, which might just be the most valuable item in the whole game. I've described it before, but I'll reiterate here that it effectively grants your character the ability to regenerate its Vitality. That, coupled with the Knight's ability to take less damage, made Tarret exceptionally difficult to kill.

I was still exploring the Forest dungeon, as I had been doing for eight months beforehand.  One of my characters had descended to Level 52 before, so I was pretty much done with mapping, I just needed to build a character that could survive.  My goal - the Reaper's Ring - was on Level 50 of one of the four dungeons. I knew this because it had last been discovered on Level 49, and every time that the Ring is found it teleports to the next level down. The trick is that, although you can find out what level it will be on, there's no way of knowing which dungeon it will be in. If it was in the Forest, I would only need to traverse 50 dungeon levels; if not, I might need to go through 100, or 150, or 200, depending on whether I guessed correctly. I was either very close to my goal, or nowhere near it.  (If you're wondering why said character was on Level 52 when I should have stopped on level 50, it's because I found stairs that skipped multiple levels. Then I died before I could find a way back up.)

I became Guild Master while grinding on Level 20 of the Forest, and decided that it was time to head to level 50 with reasonable haste.  I could have gone faster, but I made a point of fighting every battle along the way to get my stats as high as possible. By Friday night I had reached dungeon level 50 for the first time ever, and it was time to start searching for the Ring.

The search was a long one, as I made a point of fighting every battle and walking through every square. The map was a whopping 54x42 squares, for a total of 2,268. It was time-consuming, but it was also exciting for a while; after all, every square I searched had the potential to hold the Reaper's Ring. But as I filled in more and more of the map I started to get nervous. Not because of any danger: Tarret was a killing machine, and it was rare that he would lose more than half of his Vitality in any combat. No, I was nervous because I suspected that the Reaper's Ring was in another dungeon. It was a suspicion that grew, until I filled in the very last square of Forest level 50. No Ring. I would have to do it all over again.

Obviously it was disappointing, but it wasn't long before I got excited about starting a new dungeon. Firstly, I really liked the idea of being able to slaughter my way through some weaker monsters. Secondly, I had found an item while exploring Forest level 50 that would make my progress much quicker: the Map of Stairs. Normally, finding stairs up or down involved exploring every square of every Room in the dungeon, but the Map of Stairs made that easier. I've explained in earlier posts that Moria's dungeon levels are organised into alternating blocks of Rooms and Corridors (each comprised of 6x6 squares); the Corridors are usually empty, while in the Rooms you can find stairs and water holes. The Map of Stairs will alert you to the presence of a set of stairs as soon as you enter a Room, which is a godsend. I was freed from exploring every square, and could blast through the levels as quickly as possible.

Bless you, Map of Stairs.

Having done with the Forest, I moved on the the Desert (mostly because it was the next-closest dungeon to the City).  The division of the levels into blocks meant that I could explore them without mapping; I would head north, blasting through with Passwall spells, until I hit solid rock, then head a block west and start blasting my way south, systematically moving through the level until I found stairs down. At first I was fighting monsters, but eventually I just started running from them to save time. At most I was spending about twenty minutes on a level, and there were some that I was done with in only one minute. It probably took me about two hours to get down to level 50, whereas without the Map of Stairs it probably would have taken weeks.

The Desert had some different monsters to the Forest (Earth Elementals, Scorpions, Empresses), not that it made much difference in combat. Desert level 50 was quite a bit smaller than Forest 50 - a mere 1,296 squares. I was back to mapping for this level, but I was getting impatient, so I decided not to bother fully exploring the Corridors as I'd never found anything in them besides random encounters. Obviously it didn't take as long to search, but once again I came up empty-handed. I was less disappointed this time, as I now knew that reaching Level 50 of the next dungeon would take a few hours at most, and that the worst case scenario was that I only had two more dungeons to go. The end was in sight.

The next dungeon I chose was the Cave. This one took me longer to get to level 50, and it was around this time that I started to get frustrated. For whatever reason it felt like I was getting more random encounters in the Cave, and it also seemed like it was taking longer to find the stairs. I will admit that I lost my temper a time or two, which I find odd. I didn't get angry when I was losing, or when my characters died. I didn't even get angry when I lost a powerful character to an internet dropout. But now I was getting super-pissed, because I was close to winning. It seems to happen in games a lot; I'm fine with setbacks early in the game, but by the end I get really tense, because I just want it to be over.

Again, the Cave had new monsters. The most notable of these was the Horta, which might be the earliest Star Trek influence in a CRPG. Level 50 of the Cave was the same size as Forest level 50, but as I was still ignoring the Corridors it didn't take as long to finish. Once again, I came up empty, and I started to have doubts about ever finding the Ring.

The last dungeon was the Mountains, which was odd and temporarily disorienting in that it didn't display whether I was in a Room or a Corridor (normally it's written just above the viewpoint window). This might have been because I was playing the colour version, but I never bothered to check if this was different in the classic PLATO black-and-orange. The levels in the Mountains seemed smaller than the rest of the dungeons, and I made a quick descent. Level 50 was a mere 900 squares; once I'd determined its size I was elated, because I knew that I'd be claiming the Ring before too long. After all, there was nowhere else it could be.

It took me little over an hour to explore Mountains level 50, by ignoring the Corridors. With every block I cleared my fears mounted, until I hit the very last square. There was no Ring. It was nowhere to be found.

I had a momentary panic, thinking that perhaps I'd misread the documentation, and that the Ring would be on a even deeper level. I wondered if the Ring existed at all, thinking that perhaps it was part of an elaborate hoax played by the developers. The one thing I didn't consider was giving up. After a short break, I came back and took the only logical next step: I had to fully explore the Corridors.

I didn't find the Ring in the Mountains, so it was time to backtrack to the dungeons I had already explored.  Luckily I had last set up camp on level 50 of the Cave, so I was able to get back there almost instantly.  I was dutifully hitting every square, getting into a zen state of rote mapping and fleeing from enemies, and then out of nowhere it happened.

Like water to a man dying of thirst.

I found the Ring in one of the Corridors, tucked away in an area only accessible by using a Passwall spell. I feel as though perhaps the developers weren't quite playing fair here; at no other point in the game will you find anything of interest in a Corridor, Then again, it's not like finding the Reaper's Ring is a necessity. It's the closest thing the game has to an end goal, but players can ignore it if they want, so I don't feel too bad about it being difficult to find.

The final battle was against 16 Reapers, 16 Wondarks, and 16 Iconoclasts. All three of these are among the toughest monsters in the game, even if Reapers are easily killed with a Holy Word prayer. I had to run from the battle once, and was surprised to find that when I returned the monsters I had killed remained dead. (This is normal for the game, but I had thought that this battle might work differently.) On the second try I was able to kill all if the monsters with little difficulty, and claim my prize.

The Final Battle!

To be honest, the Reaper's Ring is a disappointment. All it does is add 100,000 points to your Score and reduce your Age by 5 years. Then it disappears, presumably to the next lower level of one of the dungeons. Certainly I gained some satisfaction in finding it, and quite a lot of relief, but I expected more. And just think of my poor character, who spent 41 years of his life looking for the thing. Sure, it made him five years younger, but he'd have been better off retiring as the Guild Master at age 32 and living off his millions of gold pieces.

Worth every second I spent looking for it.

Before I get into the Final Rating, here are a few more things I discovered about Moria while playing:

  • In addition to the four dungeons mentioned above (Forest, Desert, Cave and Mountains), there's  a secret fifth dungeon called the Ocean. To find it you need to go to the absolute upper left corner of the Wilderness map and cast a Passwall spell. The whole dungeon is underwater, and you will slowly drown in it unless you have some Magic Gills (which can only be found as a random drop after combat). I did a small amount of exploration, but other than being underwater it's not much different from the other dungeons. Even the monsters are much the same; I fought some Mermen and Stingrays, but I also fought Reapers, High Priests and a bunch of other things that didn't really belong in an aquatic setting.  (Thanks to the readers who e-mailed me to let me know about the existence of the Ocean.  I do wonder why you guys are sending me e-mails though; I'd really prefer you to drop your comments in the tumbleweed infested barrens that are my comments section.)

Fighting in the Ocean.

  • I also descended all the way to Level 60 of the Cave, just to see how tough the battles would be. I was encountering monsters in groups of up to 25, but they weren't significantly stronger than those on Level 50. The fights were longer, but they weren't any deadlier.

An average battle on Level 60.

  • When I was playing as a member of the Guild of Wizards, my number of attacks had gone up every time I increased my rank. As a Guild Master I was able to kill five enemies a round with my spells. I had thought that the other guilds might be the same, but I can say that, at least for Knights, this is not the case. I was stuck with a single melee attack every round, and I really did miss the ability to wipe out large groups quickly.
  • I eventually got the 'Pray for a Miracle' ability to work. When you use it, it wipes out an entire group of monsters at once. Handy, but the manual warns that the gods "tire of helping" if it's done too often. After I found the Reaper's Ring I want around spamming Miracles in every battle just to see what would happen, but there were no ill effects. I was hoping I might get struck by lightning or something.
  • I found a number of new magic items. I've already mentioned the Amulet of Home, the Magic Gills and the Map of Stairs. I also found a Water Wand, which lets you know when water is nearby. There was a Healing Wand, which instantly raised my Vitality to 100 when used; I suspect it would run out eventually, but it never did for me. I found a Teleport Rod that worked exactly like the Amulet of Home. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.
  • In the Forest dungeon, there were magic apples that could be found randomly, that had a variety of effects when eaten. The other dungeons each have their own object that functions exactly like the apple. The Desert has mushrooms, the Cave has crystal crocuses, and the Mountains has wildflowers. I didn't explore the Ocean long enough to find out what's there.
  • Monster icons in Moria are weird. Bears are depicted with swords and shields. Lions have wings. Giant Ants and Spiders use an icon that looks like a bat. Even the Hydra uses the bat icon, when there is a multi-headed lizard that would have been perfect. Some of them really are baffling.

Moria has a problem with monster icons. Also, plurals.

So, I say with much relief, that's it for Moria. Let's give this one a Final Rating and be done with it forever.

Story & Setting: Both are practically non-existent. Pretty much all the manual says is that the land of Moria is a "world of underground rooms and corridors". There's some mildly intriguing business about everything in Moria being comprised of the four elements, but it never factors into the game. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters and Monsters: There aren't any characters you can interact with in Moria, unless you count haggling with the shopkeeper. The game has a lot of monsters, but they're functionally very similar. Some of them have resistances and vulnerabilities to certain attacks, but ultimately combat is the same regardless of what you're fighting. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: I do love that orange-and-black PLATO colour scheme, but I spent the vast majority of my time with Moria playing the multi-coloured version. Even if I hadn't, this game would get docked for the teeny-tiny viewpoint window. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Everything in this game seems to function well, but it's so good at obscuring its mechanics that it's difficult to say for sure. Combat has a lot of options, but ultimately it boils down to repetitively going over the same routines. I should probably bump this game up for its multiplayer features, but I didn't get to experience them, and ultimately I have to rate Moria on its single player experience. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a difficult one. The game isn't exactly hard, it's just long. The trickiest part is learning to wait between battles so that you can heal back to maximum Vitality. It also doesn't have an end goal, really, as the Reaper's Ring is more of an optional quest you can undertake if you want. I lost a lot of characters in this game, and there were quite a few times that I couldn't explain why; suddenly I just wasn't able to run from a battle, or a monster would be inexplicably hard to kill. As I've said before, the game obscures its mechanics very well.  So while much of the game feels easy, these sudden moments of death and the sheer length of time it takes to find the Ring make it feel just a little too difficult. So I'll go with my gut here. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It's the first 3-D first-person perspective RPG, the first RPG where you could form parties with other players, the first with hunger and thirst mechanics, the first where you could join a guild, the first with haggling, and so on and so on. It's also an influence on Oubliette, which later spawned such games as Wizardry and Bard's Tale. There's no doubt that Moria has an important place in CRPG history. Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: You would think, given that I played this game for eight months, that I had fun with it.  After all, who would be crazy enough to devote so much time to a game that they weren't enjoying? Well, you're looking at him. While I wouldn't say that I outright hated the game, I did find it fairly tedious. The act of playing it was highly repetitive, and not all that rewarding. And while I like mapping dungeons, it's not much fun if there's nothing in them to discover. In the end, it was a mindless activity to do while I was watching TV, and I was rarely looking forward to it. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Moria does not get the bonus point, because I am never laying eyes on it again as long as I live. The scores above total 18, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 36. That is perhaps a bit low, but the sheer length of time it took to find the Reaper's Ring, as well as the large, empty dungeons really hurt this one. I'm certain it would have scored higher if there had been some active players around while I was logged in, as the multiplayer options seemed intriguing, but in the end I prefer single-player games, and that's how I experienced Moria.

And with that, I'm almost done with the PLATO era of CRPGs. I only have another posting or two to do for Oubliette, and then I won't encounter another mainframe CRPG until Avatar in 1979. What that means is that I can finally start making some headway through my list; I don't anticipate encountering any games that I'll be stuck on for close to a year, at least until I reach the early 1990s.  Short games, how I have missed you.

4 comments:

  1. Congratulations again on a hard-earned victory. I can only begin to imagine how good it will feel to now play games whose time to completion can be measured efficiently in hours or (at most) days, rather than weeks or months.

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  2. Nice job! I was wondering what you were going to do if the Reaper's Ring didn't end up being in the Forest. It's incredible that you ended up scouring level 50 in all four dungeons in order to find it, and had such a (relatively) easy time of it. I guess all of that experience paid off.

    I'm looking forward to reading about what comes next.

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    1. It was less about experience, and more about luck in finding the Map of Stairs. Without that, the rest of the game would have taken weeks, if not months, to finish.

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    2. I guess that's why later games started giving you ESP-type spells to detect hazards, stairs, and the like. I know Bard's Tale does at least... I can't remember if that started as early as Wizardry. It's been a long time since I've played any of those games.

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